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Saving babies in South Africa

Tuesday 1 July 2014

By Ms Gugulethu Ndebele, Chief Executive Officer, Save the Children South Africa 

You can tell a lot about a country from the way it treats its women and young children. If a country really believes in equality then it will invest in their health, safety, education and empowerment. And if governments are serious about building long term prosperity and stability they will do so because our children will grow into the adults that will drive this growth. 

This week, in South Africa, the spotlight will be on women’s and children’s health as leaders from across government, business, civil society and academia gather for a high-level forum to discuss how to spur progress in this critical area.  A new global action plan – “Every Newborn”, which aims to end the tragedy of babies dying of preventable causes in the first month of life, will be launched.  It is much needed; each year, around the world, nearly 3 million babies do not survive the first 28 days of life. 

It’s therefore an opportune moment to assess the situation of women’s, children’s and babies’ health in South Africa.  There has been significant progress in reducing the number of children under 5 dying.  According to UN figures, between 1990 and 2012, there was around a 27% decline in the under-5 mortality rate. This was principally due to the introduction and scaling up of prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV programmes for HIV-infected mothers. A free antiretroviral (ARV) programme for South Africans with HIV, including children, was also introduced in 2004. Studies have shown that ARV programmes have had a significant impact on increasing the life expectancy of South Africans. 

However, South Africa still has a way to go to achieve Millennium Development Goal 4 of reducing child mortality by two-thirds by 2015. According to the South African 2014 Rapid Mortality Surveillance Report (RMS), in 2012, the under- 5 mortality rate was 41 per 1,000 live births; the MDG target is 20.

Addressing the unfinished business of  this goal will require sustained political commitment and a continued focus on critical objectives —not only on measures to prevent HIV but also on other important causes of child mortality, including newborn mortality (the deaths of babies within 28 days of birth).  According to the RMS, in South Africa, in 2012 an estimated 12,000 babies did not survive their first month of life and whilst there may have been no significant increase in the rates of newborn babies dying in recent years, neither has there been real progress with the newborn mortality rate showing little change since 2009. 

Yet, the majority of these deaths are preventable. According to a recent Lancet study, with high coverage of quality care around the time of birth, an estimated 15,000 newborn and maternal deaths and stillbirths in South Africa could be prevented by 2025.  The presence of a trained health worker, along with basic medicines such as antiseptics and antibiotics, vital equipment and a clean environment to work in can save lives.

There are many strong policies in place in South Africa, including a specific strategy to tackle newborn deaths. The main challenge South Africa has is implementation to ensure all children and women across the country have access to high quality health services and health workers as well as tackling the underlying causes of newborn mortality such as inequality and poverty.

The South African government has also been a welcome global champion of the Every Newborn Action Plan. This new international plan aims to focus specific attention on newborn health and identifies actions for improving their survival, health and development. It has already been endorsed by over 190 countries and will be launched on Monday in South Africa. 

For too long, the tragedy of babies failing to survive the first month of life has been invisible but we can change this. It will require governments, civil society, the private sector and communities to come together with renewed resolve and commitment to take the action needed to ensure that every woman and every child has access to the high quality care that is their right.  This week, as South African and global leaders gather in Johannesburg we must all grasp the opportunity to show we are serious about achieving a world where no child is born to die.

Authors Details: Ms Ndebele joined Save the Children South Africa in April 2014 after a long and distinguished career with the Department of Basic Education where since 2007, she was Deputy Director General responsible for social mobilisation and support services 

For further information, please contact: Alice Macdonald Tel:  012 430 7776 [email protected], Cell: 0785698057